Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 3, 2023
Romans 12:9-21 “Practice Makes Perfect”
In his popular book “Outliers”, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell examined psychological and sociological data to help us understand why some people are able to master a skill. These ‘outliers’ on the bell curve of humanity, Gladwell posited, didn’t reach their level of skill by happenstance or a trick of nature. Rather several different conditions had to be met. And of all the different conditions, commitment to practicing the skill was one of the most important.
One of his conclusions was that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. To help you understand what amount of time that is, it is the same as practicing a skill for eight solid hours a day, every day, for very nearly three and a half years. And that is just to reach mastery of a skill. In order to maintain that level, you must continue to devote a few hours every single day to practicing the skill. For the outliers of humanity, Gladwell stated, it is not just that they devoted tremendous amounts of time to mastering the skill, they continue to work at it daily.
A colleague of mine, a minister in Houston, was telling me about a music festival that uses her church building for two weeks every summer. An orchestra would rehearse for several hours a day, which she could hear in her office. One afternoon her nerves started to get frayed because the group was practicing one particular part of one particular piece over and over again. My friend described it as the music that would be played in the background of a horror movie to let the audience know something frightening was about to happen. The music they were practicing was building tension, but because they were just practicing that one part, the tension never got resolved. Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore and she asked the director if they could take a break. But, after a short break, they started up again. Over and over again playing the same part because, according to the director, they hadn’t gotten it right yet. And when the entire piece was played that evening in the concert, apparently the tension the music built was so expertly done my friend didn’t even realize she was hearing the same thing she had heard dozens of times earlier in the day. Practice makes perfect.
So, what if we were to take all of this social and psychological wisdom that Malcolm Gladwell and other outliers of our world have shared, and applied it to our identity as Christians? What if we thought of Christianity not just as a belief system and a comfort, but also a skill to be mastered?
Early 20th century Austrian poet Rilke said: “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” ‘For one human being to love another, that is…the most difficult of all our tasks…for which all other work is but preparation.’ Rilke is in a lot of ways is echoing Jesus. Jesus taught that, ultimately, all the commandments placed upon humanity can be summed up as loving God and loving neighbor. If love is the ultimate commandment we are to follow, then as followers of Jesus love is the skill we are called upon to master. Throughout the Gospels we read about Jesus teaching, either through parables or direct lessons or by example, what it looks like to love God and neighbor. Everything else we do is preparation for living a life of love.
And in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, which we read a small portion of today, he takes up that lesson of Jesus. This is, boiled down to its basic elements, Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that famous teaching that begins with the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is about what life looks like when one is devoted to loving God and neighbor. Paul, in this section of his letter, takes that lesson and interprets it for a new generation of people who have devoted themselves to following Jesus, a people who had committed themselves to the work of mastering what it means to be Christian.
Paul was nothing if not a practical man. His letters were, though sometimes a bit rambly, really just advice or direction about how those early communities were to live. They were living life in a completely different way – one working to be free of hierarchy and greed. A life focused on the understanding that we are all created in the image of God and therefore must treat one another as such. This was new, entirely new and radical and Paul was busy in his letters trying to help those communities figure out what that means day to day. In this section of his letter, Paul gives very practical guidance about how to master this life focused on loving God and neighbor. “Be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers, bless those who persecute you, live in harmony with one another, do not claim to be wiser than you are, never avenge yourself.” On and on he goes. This is, as I said, essentially a summation of Jesus’ teaching. And, by the way, some of my favorite advice is in here. Paul says not only are we not to avenge, but rather we are to heap so much love upon our enemies that the love is like hot coals poured on their heads.
Everything Paul writes is…obvious to us today. It was less so to the people he was writing to, as I said, the Christian movement was entirely new and radical. But to those of us who have grown up in the established Christian church, nothing in here seems all that radical. But that doesn’t mean any of it is easy. In fact, doing any of this, let alone all of it, consistently is nearly impossible. If we think of this as a list of skills to master, devoting 10,000 hours to each and continually practicing them in order to maintain that mastery – well, that is more than a lifetime’s worth of work.
But, I don’t think Paul expected mastery – even when his letters get a little terse. And I certainly don’t think Jesus expected mastery either. He preached that God’s grace extended to everyone, no matter how many times we fail. Not only that he reminded us that we are to forgive others 70×7 times, in other words always, when they fail. No, I don’t think mastery is expected. But I do believe that effort is. What both Jesus and Paul expected those they were teaching was to try, to practice. Practice loving God and neighbor completely in everything we do. Because, as the outliers of humanity will tell us, it is practice that makes perfect.
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Jesus, Paul, Rilke, and all the ancient and modern saints of this world are examples for us of what it means to see love as the goal with everything else as preparation. Christianity, when it is at its best, is the preparation. Our faith and beliefs are the vehicles we can use to help us practice what it means to love God and neighbor. We probably won’t ever become masters at it, but mastery isn’t the expectation. It is the effort, the genuine desire to show and share love, that is the expectation. God’s grace will be there is catch us when we fail. And, in the meantime, we will keep moving forward with love as the goal. Amen.
Great and loving God, you created us with the hope that we will live our lives as reflections of your love for one another and all of creation. This hope that you have in us and for us is your great gift and for it we are grateful. It is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
Living into the hope you have for us, God, is something that we will always be working at. For the times when it feels impossible, give us your courage. For the times when it feels overwhelming, give us your peace. For the times we fail, help us to remember your grace. And for the times we succeed, help us to feel your rejoicing.
One of the ways God we seek to reflect your love is in prayer. As we open our hearts and spirits to you, lifting our prayers for ourselves and our neighbors, help us to feel your presence…
Great and good God, this beautiful world is filled with possibilities to give and receive love. And so we pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our example in what it means to reflect you. We pray all of this in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…